Why YOU Should Care: Competitor Group Leads the Race to the Bottom

So what?
So what? (Photo credit: Daikrieg)

Competitor Group’s decision to cut it’s elite athlete programs and redirect the funds to increasing back-of-the-pack participation has been met with the reactions you would expect. Either Competitor is an evil anti-elite runner corporation or made a sensible business decision because no one but elites and a handful of LetsRun readers care about elites, anyway. There is also the alternative view posited most notably by Josh Cox that elites deserve to be cut-off because they don’t do anything other than run fast and expect a paycheck.

As with most controversies, there’s a little truth in all sides. But the real reason that I am offended by CGI isn’t because they cut funding to their elite programs, it’s their justification for doing it that really bugs me and it should bug you too.

Gordon Gekko
Gordon Gekko totally supports the defunding of elite runner programs! (Photo credit: Gaynoir_)

It’s Just Business. 

Sure, Competitor Group (CGI) is a business. If the elite support program wasn’t a good investment, then they should get rid of it to be more profitable … if profit is the only metric. But come on! is that all that matters? Should that be the end of the discussion? Will any other motivation change CGI’s decision other than where the dollars come from? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we should quit talking about whether the decision was good for the sport of running or what the decision means about the current state of and the future of the sport of running.

It’s the Athletes’ Fault Because Athletes Have Nothing Better to Do Than Corporate Marketing.

If you get an appearance fee, you should wear one of these.
If you get an appearance fee, you should wear one of these. While racing.

As for whether the majority of current and future customers of CGI races care about elites, well they likely don’t. Josh Cox and some others argue that some of the fault for that lays at the feet of the elites themselves. From CGI’s perspective, elites are a tool to promote their races, so what were they doing with the elites? Elites are a great resource to have at your disposal. How was CGI using this resource? Expecting them to just show-up and somehow that would return a profit on the investment?

Would the elites who benefited from the CGI programs have done more than just show up if CGI asked them to?  If they asked elite athletes to do something and the athletes refused to do it, then that’s a different story, but let’s face it, if someone was going to pay you to run as long as you wore a dumb sandwich board or a purple bunny suit at the expo, I bet you’d do it.

This leads to the question: whose job is it to determine what athletes need to do to earn their money? Who has the advantage of a marketing department filled with trained marketing professionals, CGI or the athletes? Who knows how to sell the product: the seller or the hired help? Isn’t it CGI’s job to use the tools it has to market its product? Why is it the athletes’ job to figure out how to hustle for CGI? Is a marketing degree a prerequisite for being an elite runner?

Sure, elites could otherwise do something to promote themselves to the masses and they should. Perhaps elite runners need an association to promote their value to the masses. Hey, USATF! I’m talking to you. Maybe USATF is dropping the ball here (although they seem to be trying to improve), or maybe there needs to be a separate association dedicated to this purpose, I don’t know. But asking individual athletes to figure this out and blaming them when they are trying to financially get by and train at an elite level is a bit rich.

Why This Sucks for All Runners.

What really bothers me the most about this–and the real reason I believe every runner should be outraged–comes from CGI’s justification for its decision. But first, let’s think about this:

CGI puts on running races. It’s name is Competitor Group. Yet its CEO, Scott Dickey, when asked about the decision to cut funding to elite athlete programs, had this to say (emphasis added):

Competitor Group is at it’s core a health and wellness company dedicated to promoting and enhancing an active lifestyle. Lifestyle is the key word, not Sport. Rock n’ Roll marathons have always been about the journey, the commitment, the personal dedication required to train and finish a half or full marathon. We’re not about how fast you complete the race, we’re about the fact that you showed up on the start line and the commitment one has made to complete the journey.

Wait. WHAT?! A company called Competitor that is one of the biggest promoter of running races  is all about lifestyle and not sport? Come again?

The Carlsbad 5000, which is owned by CGI, is about having the courage to show up and not about how fast you run? Then why the hell does it bill itself as the WORLDS FASTEST 5KWhy do Rock N Roll races boast about fast flat courses and Boston qualifiers if it’s never been about that? Why EVER support elites who are athletes engaged in a sport if your company has always been about feel-good lifestyle activities rather than about a sporting event?

This absurd justification tells me that CGI doesn’t give two…er…’hoots’ about health and wellness. This goes back to point one: this is all about the money. From CGI’s perspective, that’s all that matters: how they can make the most money with investing the least. Whatever the fallout of that decision is, who cares as long as the money keeps rolling in?

And what is CGI purportedly going to do with the money it used to spend on elite programs? Good Question! Dickey explains:

We’re going to reinvest those dollars into entertainment, the experience, more staff to execute more flawlessly, and in our continued efforts to increase participation.

And okay, so you might still be thinking “so what?” What’s the big problem?

The problem is that our sport suffers. Yes, our sport. My sport and your sport and that guy who just started running’s sport. Yes, the elites suffer, but we all suffer when the one of the biggest promoter of running races in North America caters to the lowest common denominator, betting that more people believe that “just showing up” is the achievement rather than the hard work and personal boundary pushing that have historically been the draw of races and the sport of running. Why are people drawn to run half and full marathons? To hear bands play? For the bag of chips and warm beer at the finish line? For the chintzy medal and a couple of photo ops?  If that’s the only reason, why would we keep coming back?

When people attend a race, they expect a race. (Just guessing, but I do, and I imagine you do as well.) I checked the dictionary to see what it says a race or to race is (I figure the common definition is probably what people expect when they sign up for a race, right?) Here’s what it said:

1. a competition between runners, horses, vehicles, boats, etc., to see which is the fastest in covering a set course.

1. move or progress swiftly or at full speed.

Scott Dickey, it does not say this:

1. a group of people covering a set distance while being entertained and doing it as comfortably as possible.

1. to show up and be entertained.

Even the least naturally or historically athletic among us runners are attracted to running as a way of becoming more athletic. The whole purpose of taking up running is because it’s a sport and people want a more athletic lifestyle, whether to lose weight, increase health and fitness or for the sake of it. Why can’t a race be about sport and fun? Aren’t sports fun? Isn’t running a lifestyle? Does anyone really sign up for a race for the “entertainment” and are appalled when people are actually racing (trying to get from start to finish as fast as possible – why do I feel like I have to keep explaining what a race is?)

Ah. Do you think someone at CGI saw the rise of mud runs, color runs and other “fun runs” and thought that this is where the future of the running craze is going and therefore the running dollars are going? Instead of separating themselves as “real races,” CGI and its Rock N Roll series will now join the “fun runs” in the race to the bottom – whoever completely unsports and unathletes and uncompetitors running and races first wins! CGI takes the lead in the sport of running’s race to the bottom. Bravo.

See, the real insult isn’t that CGI is going to stop paying appearance fees and accommodating elites at its races. The real insult is that they think if they remove the concepts of “sport” or “athlete” from their events that they will somehow attract more participants. That color run and mud run participants will suddenly be interested in half and full marathons because now they’re not sports. What is with the insinuation that vast numbers of people are turned off by the notion of sport, but turned on by gimmicks, entertainment and shiny shiny medals and worse, insta-achievement?

It assumes that even our back-of-the-pack brothers and sisters aren’t working their tails off on race day or that couch potatoes will be motivated to get away from the tv set and hit the starting line if there’s a better band playing than because they’re inspired to better themselves through athletics. It’s assuming that more of us marching through the streets of every major and minor American city in the spring and fall are there just ‘cuz and not because we want to push our personal limits and see our training put to the test. It’s assuming that a competitive front-of-the-mid-packer like me who has never once run one of their races isn’t a potential paying customer. Which is fine, because I’m not paying all that money to be “entertained.” I pay my racing money to, well, be a competitor and race (see dictionary).

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Rock N Roll marathons are nickel and dime you Madmen.

    I suspect they are also worried about filling up cups of water too high at aid stations for fear of loosing money.

    (Yeah, I’m being snarky.)

    Rather have more home grown events anyway. Lets hope they can sprout up and compete against the conglomerate.

  2. I’ve been following this story pretty closely since it broke. I am a mid-pack runner, but am interested in the sport of running and follow the careers of my favorite athletes. Some other observations from around the internet:

    1- R ‘n’ R numbers are on the decline. Almost all their races are showing drops in participation. It could be that catering to ‘one-and-done’ marathoners isn’t the best way to grow the sport and increase participation. I wonder if by focusing more on the competitive aspect, if they would encourage more people to race multiple times? By taking finishing time out of the equation, they remove some of the incentive many people have to run another marathon.

    2- R ‘n’ R races are beginning to have problems attracting enough volunteers. This was a huge problem at R ‘n’ R USA this year, which I ran (unmanned water tables with no water cups- runners had to pour their own water, wait in lines, or go without for the first 1/2 of the course) and I am hearing it was a problem at R ‘n’ R Virginia Beach this past weekend.I am wondering if people are realizing they are volunteering to help a for-profit company make money. It’s the kind of thing they might have been able to get away with for a few years, after taking over races with histories and reputations, but I wonder if people aren’t wising up about where they’re spending their volunteer hours.

    3- I have been thinking that there might be an opening in the market (especially now) for a race organization that markets itself as almost the opposite of R ‘n’ R. Where the ‘frills’ are athlete-geared– speakers at the expo, giving talks on good form, cross-training, or nutrition, or athletes themselves having Q & A sessions. Then again, I think most athletes interested in a no-frills experience just want to run their small, local races anyway… But some might be willing to travel to hear speakers or meet their favorite athletes. Competitor Magazine has quite a good stable of writers, IMO– People like Mario Fraioli and Matt Fitzgerald– who they might be able to get to speak.

    4-Is running really that profitable a business? Is there a reason most races have been put on by nonprofits for so long? I am not sure that long term, there is the profit margin in running that private equity expects.

    1. There’s one thing that’s almost for sure: the way they handled this and so abruptly stopped funding the program shows there are big problems within their organization. They tried to have it both ways for a long time – sneakily cut the elite programs so their events will be taken seriously, but also market them as “lifestyle” events (wth does that even mean?!) They clearly think that catering to the less serious athletes is cheaper and more profitable, but I think they are going to lose a lot of the mid-pack people that want a serious race.

      GREAT point about volunteers and about supporting small local races. Here in Ohio we have some awesome locally run marathons: Columbus and Akron come to mind. Both are excellently run, competitive and super fun RACES. Even the Cleveland Marathon, which is infamously relatively poorly run by a for-profit, is looking a lot better after the CGI debacle!

  3. Love love love this perspective! I think that the disparity between the Competitor name and their stated focus is ridiculous. What is really sad is that the original race company that became Competitor (when they were purchased) was called Elite Racing. Not so much anymore.

  4. I suspect that what is not being mentioned is the increased cost burden of security at major events (and let’s face it, all RnR races are major events, though they seem to be working their way out of that problem…). I have no issue with the idea of cutting the elite fees, as I doubt it is a good return on their investment, even if you were to make more of an effort to market the elites. Even as a pretty competitive runner, I really don’t care what elites (if any) are in the races I run. But I also don’t care at all about the entertainment on the course (or after) – in fact, I find it annoying. My wife wants to run the Las Vegas RnR half and that’s fine, being in a great city, she finds it motivating, but it’s more about the location than the fanfare.

    Anyway, this is a great and well-written post Salty, nice catch on the hypocrisy of promoting lifestyle over sport. I just hope we don’t see the RnR Marathon Color Runs anytime soon (as the cheap dyes they use may just end up being toxic).

    1. Thanks!

      I think that races could support elite running and use them in a greater capacity than just at the particular races they run. In other words, an elite runner might get an appearance fee at RnR New Orleans, but give a talk at the RnR Savannah expo or something. Or appear in ads for the organization or whatever. I am not a marketing expert, but I can see that there are many possibilities here.

      Unfortunately, RnR is the only game in town for many great cities. I hope the Vegas race delivers for your wife!

  5. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for calling them out, Salty.

    I’m a mid-pack runner, but after training for 4.5 months in an attempt to set a PR (and feeling like I have a second job), I take offense to CGI disregarding my hard work and saying I could get the same experience as someone who just showed up. I know very few people who run for the entertainment of the races. They run because they love the SPORT and want to push themselves further than they have before.

    Thank you again for your perspective on this issue!

    1. I’m with you. I don’t know anyone who does it because they’re bored or whatever! Everyone from beginners, to dabblers to the hardest core do it because it’s an athletic activity!

  6. This is a great article and I completely agree with you. I think all of these gimmicky races are great for getting people active and off the couch but I’m not sure if they are good for the sport of running as a whole. When I race, I race. I’ve done a couple of Rock n Roll races and I’ve never once stayed for the entertainment or really paid attention to the entertainment on the course. You want to know why because I’m racing, pushing myself, and focused on that. When I get done I don’t want to wait around for a band I want to go home, eat, take an ice bath, and sleep. I would much rather forgo the entertainment and fund elites to run.

    I wonder if they’ve considered that the reason their numbers are decreasing is that they charge an outrageous amount for all of their races. Especially if you are targeting more of the everyday runner a lower price point might attract more people.

    1. Ha! I’m with you. When I ran Boston I never noticed the Citgo sign, Fenway park or anything really! I was so fixated on FINISHING that I didn’t notice any of that.

      As for the cost – YES! It’s insane how much they charge. I really don’t want to pay that kind of money to race unless it’s a fast competitive race with high stakes. Craziness!

  7. “What is with the insinuation that vast numbers of people are turned off by the notion of sport, but turned on by gimmicks, entertainment and shiny shiny medals and worse, insta-achievement?”

    Ugh, I actually find it kind of offensive and embarrassing. What are we, kindergartners?! Can we not handle an activity requiring a little intrinsic motivation?!

    I agree overall that these events may be great for first-time or one-time marathoners (and I love getting people to start running!)… but that just doesn’t seem like a sustainable business model.

  8. As a mid-packer and reasonably competitive AG runner, the “lifestyle” thing just didn’t resonate. I’m glad you have comments about the volunteers, because I’ve idly wondered on occasion where volunteers for a for-profit race come from. As race director for a 10-mile race, I find the volunteers are part of the local running community, part of the non-profit arts community that benefits, or both. It would be really difficult to get volunteers to stand in the rain, in the heat and show up at pre-dawn to help with setup if it were simply for corporate profit.
    The same week I read about CGI’s decision, I received an announcement from Road Runners Club of American (RRCA) of their 2014 championship running series http://www.rrca.org/services/news-entry/rrca-2014-national-championships/#When:18:28:07Z. I plan to compete (not just participate, but compete) in at least one of series. This is a long-established grass roots organization that promotes running at all levels and has led many a novice to serious running.

  9. I’ve taken a long time to work out my thoughts on this – SAHM, atrophied brain. This is where I’ve come to, for what it’s worth.

    1) It actually doesn’t bother me that they’ve cut support for the elite. I know this sounds rude, I’m being honest. I’m not bothered about elite runners. I could only recognise two or three on TV, let alone if they walked past me. I don’t feel this decision affects me at all.

    2) I also don’t believe it’s the job of big companies to fund athletics and athletic development. It’s their job to provide what they promise to participants and to provide a return to shareholders. They are not there to grow running talent.

    3) That responsibility lies with national bodies. The only way that this change will affect me is if elite running goes into decline and at the next Olympics etc, we don’t win as many medals. However I still stand by point 2. That’s not Competitor Group’s role.

    4) If runners are truly fussed about this, they should put their money where their mouths are and boycott RnR races. Personally,I’ve never fancied a RnR race or a Disney race (shudder) so I choose my races accordingly.

    I’m a little concerned I sound really bolshy, I’m not. I’m trying to formulate my thoughts clearly mainly for my own benefit 😉 I do believe we vote with our wallets…I bet CGI hope we agree with them!

  10. I completely understand where they are coming from. They recognize that running is a participatory sport, not a spectator one. By allocating more funds to promote the broadened support and participation in the sport from people who are far from elite, there is a foundation being built on which to grow into a sport that garners these “local heroes” you speak of. Putting your running ego aside, the vast majority of people don’t care who wins a race. They only care to finish it themselves. In the end, it will most likely have detrimental effects on the elite running community but at the same time, the general running community will see a boost and the overall sport will benefit. I personally would rather see another 1,000 people on the start line than see some guy I’ve never heard of get another $5,000. I think you need to build the appeal of the sport to the masses before you can expect big money to go to the elite athletes. It’s a shame because I wish running was more on the map, but from a business standpoint it’s ignorant to think that professional running is at the same place as other sports that have the fan support that they do. Bring more people and the money will follow.